Workers entering the emergency response center at Fukushima, via the IAEA
When one is faced with a nuclear disaster, the first priority is to prevent a meltdown, then clean-up can happen. But a full two years after the Fukushima Daiichi crisis began, new leaks of radioactive material suggest that Tepco, the plant's operating authority, is still struggling to contain the mess, let alone stabilize it long term.
The Fukushima disaster peaked at a level 7 on the International Atomic Energy Agency's nuclear event scale, which is as bad as the scale gets—Chernobyl bad. While a full meltdown was averted, the cleanup and containment process has been less than smooth. Now, the ongoing crisis is reportedly the worst it's been in the 30 months since the initial event.
Since the March 2011 tsunami took out power to Fukushima, water has been pumped in to cool the reactors and then stored on-site until a suitable long-term solution could be found. The problem is that, two years on, those temporary tanks are beginning to leak. That water is highly radioactive; one puddle measured was emitting five times the annual radiation limit for a nuclear plant worker.
On Monday, highly radioactive water was first discovered leaking from the emergency storage tanks that Tepco set up to store water used to cool reactors during the initial disaster as well as groundwater that continually seeps into the reactor site. Since then, the authority has reported that a total of 300 metric tons of contaminated water have seeped out of storage tanks, which were intially used to prevent emergency cooling water from seeping into the ground or sea from storage pools.
The news has prompted Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to propose elevating the incident to level 3 on the IAEA scale from its current level 1 status. (Level 1 is described as an "anomaly," while level 3 is reserved for "serious incidents.") If approved, that would put the Fukushima incident at its worst level since the original crisis.
Andrew Sherry, the director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester, told Reuters that while the original plan was "sensible," it's clearly past time to find a better solution. "This incident highlights the need for an inspection program for these many hundreds of storage tanks, and the need to consider replacing bolted or sealed storage tanks, which were relatively quick to build, with a more robust welded design," he said.
Storage tanks for radioactive wastewater at Fukushima, via the IAEA
The Japanese NRA agrees, and the proposal to upgrade the severity of the situation is a clear admission that current stabilization efforts aren't enough. "The current situation is at the point where more surveillance won't be enough to keep the accidents from happening," NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka told reporters this morning. "Our job is now to lower the risk of these accidents from becoming fatal."
The NRA said in its conference that it wasn't sure Tepco could handle the problem on its own, which is tough to hear two years out from the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
As would be expected, a Chinese representative told Reuters in a statement that the country was "shocked" that Japan hasn't gotten a hold on the disaster yet. But aside from the usual back-and-forth between the two countries, China—and the rest of Southeast Asia—has a valid concern.
If Tepco can't secure the radioactive wastewater, the region's highly important waterways are at risk, especially considering radioactive wastewater was confirmed to be leaking into the ocean just a month ago. The last thing anyone needs is more radioactive fish, and clearly entrusting multi-year storage of highly radioactive water in bolted storage tanks isn't working.
For those living in or near the disaster zone, and Japanese citizens at large, the news is just the latest fuel for growing distrust in Tepco and the government at large. And, really, upgrading the disaster after two years of cleanup efforts is enough for anyone to lose faith, and a general malaise with Japan's nuclear industry has already spurred a boom in renewable energy development.
But Japan's energy reality is simple: It's heavily reliant on imported fossil fuels, a position no country wants to be in. Nuclear power offers the country a path to self-sufficiency, one it can't currently do without, which is why Japan is bringing its plants back online.